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© Ismene Brown 2017


"Hamlet is simply teeming with clichés and unconcealed borrowings from others"



15 MAR 15   The Bolshoi Ballet’s new contemporary creation, Hamlet, directed by British director Declan Donnellan of Cheek By Jowl and choreographed by Radu Poklitaru, has had an absolute pasting from a major Moscow dance critic, Tatiana Kuznetsova in Kommersant.

Her dissection of what she describes as naive, painfully old-fashioned and cliché-ridden in scenario and choreography, caps the unenthusiastic reception of a production whose final scene has proved particularly controversial, apparently referring to unofficial Russian troops in Ukraine, if Izvestia is to be believed.

Kuznetsova writes that Poklitaru (a popular figure in Russia, and chief choreographer for the Sochi Olympics) has not remotely developed the sort of talent required at the Bolshoi, while the Cheek By Jowl duo prove themselves no more than ‘naughty schoolboys’ in their attempt to foist a political agenda onto the ballet, which she says comes across as soap opera.

The bad review for this Hamlet will make uncomfortable reading for Bolshoi ballet director Sergei Filin, who commissioned the trio of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, of Britain’s Cheek by Jowl, and choreographer Radu Poklitaru (Poklitaru and Donnellan pictured left) despite the poor reception given their previous Bolshoi creation, a radical reworking of Romeo and Juliet 12 years ago. Filin’s vulnerability since the acid attack by a dancer on him which permanently damaged his sight has so far been outweighed by his artistic success in the job, including last season’s acclaimed new creation The Taming of the Shrew by the Monte Carlo choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot.

However, in the past 18 months the Bolshoi general director  Vladimir Urin has admitted that programming is being made more Russophile and less international to accord with current political sentiments, and no doubt he and Filin were both hoping this international Hamlet would not prove a hostage to fortune. As Kuznetsova has long been pro-Filin, this review will be particularly seized on by his ill-wishers.

Moskovsky Komsomolets’s critic Pavel Yashenkov focuses his complaint on the lack of choreography, saying that it is more of a play without words, intended as ‘food for thought’. He refers to Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘too abstract’ Hamlet-themed ballet for the Bolshoi (Misericordes) in 2007, and versions by Boris Eifman, Robert Helpmann, Serge Lifar and Bronislava Nijinska among others, as evidence of the chequered past of Shakespeare’s great tragedy as dance.

Here’s a translation of Kuznetsova's review.


Soldiers in spirit

Kommersant, 13 March 2015, by Tatiana Kuznetsova

The Britons Declan Donnellan (director) and Nick Ormerod (set designer) and the Moldovian Radu Poklitaru (choreographer) have once before staged Shakespeare at the Bolshoi: in 2003 they showed a modern version of Romeo and Juliet quite unlike a traditional ballet. The performance, full of risk and drive, was accepted by critics and a young public, but did not survive long in the repertoire. Prokofiev’s heirs considered that the staging treated the score wrongly, and the show was banned. The memory of a successful working project outlived the production itself, prompting the Bolshoi ballet artistic director Sergei Filin to turn once more to the creative trio - this time to put on Hamlet.

Poklitaru has admitted that the stagers would not themselves have chosen this particular play, being too intellectual for ballet in their view. Still, they accepted the commission, and spent three and a half years jointly searching for music for it (eventually they chose Shostakovich’s fifth and fifteenth symphonies), and working out a concept and libretto, in which the dominant theme would be loss (of loved ones, one’s place in life, even life itself) - the most emotional possible theme, in fact.

The co-authors, while generally antipathetic to any intellectual capabilities of ballet as a genre, are hardly any less sceptical about the intellectual capacity of the ballet audience. They recount Hamlet to us like a soap opera.

So we get the birthday of a child prince (Hamlet, Laertes and Ophelia are about 10); there are loving parents, deferential courtiers, Yorick as a clown with an umbrella. And now the juvenile leads are replaced by adults, and the vigorous uncle presses a suitcase onto Hamlet and bundles him off abroad. And now a pack of medics treat the old king, sprawling on his bed, until he dies, while Gertrude, grieving over his body, is comforted by a hypocritical Claudius. And now the returning Hamlet happens upon the wedding of his mother and uncle; and now his father’s ghost, in hospital pyjamas, and materializing from a mist-filled rectangular hole at the back, shows his son the truth about his murder - the same supernatural portal spouting swirling white mist frames the pantomime when Claudius pours poison in the sleeping king’s ear.

And in this fashion, as a series of mime episodes with a minimal interpolation of movement, the trio of authors get us to the end of the play.

This doesn’t just look naive, it’s painfully old-fashioned. The characters in the production are dressed as if in the 1950s, basically no different from the supposedly medieval actors of any old archive film whose Hamlet shows up something more resembling The Mousetrap. Shostakovich’s mighty music (conducted by maestro Dronov, the Bolshoi orchestra resonates with tragic power) cruelly exposes the poverty of the directorial decisions, especially in the choreography. In the 12 years since Romeo and Juliet Poklitaru has amassed a not particularly rich collection of choreographic trademarks permitting him to flourish in the capacity of director of the chamber-sized Kiev Modern Ballet, but evidently inadequate for a staging at the Bolshoi. Hamlet is simply teeming with clichés and unconcealed borrowings from others. [...]

Perhaps Radu Poklitaru himself feels that he’s gone overboard with the clichés;  in any case, in the scene where Ophelia goes mad, which is copied from Giselle (for all that the sword is replaced by a pistol), he seems to be hinting at some kind of post-modern game. However the rules of the game aren’t clear either to the audience or the actors, who give their all to the production with dedication worthy of a better enterprise, and eliciting one’s sincere sympathy for them.

The graceful, intelligent Denis Savin (Hamlet) squeezes the maximum thought from the galloping mise-en-scène, from the tedious splits in his choppy monologues, from the meagre movement in his encounters with Ophelia (Anastasia Stashkevich), and from the meeting with the late Yorick, prophetically stabbing him in the back with an umbrella - exactly as the combative Laertes will inflect the fatal wound on Hamlet. In this latter role, Igor Tsvirko’s artistic talents and temperament are shackled to a constant drill, for the Bolshoi’s beautiful male corps de ballet, under Laertes’ leadership, have to play soldiers unceasingly, marching in formation across and all round the stage.

"In order to make a genuinely political ballet, it’s not enough just to have people playing soldiers and specials. What’s needed is spiritual force and powerful talent"

This military motif for Hamlet, carefully hidden by the family melodrama with its criminal stuffing, emerges in full clarity in the final scene, when all the ‘dead’ rise from the floor and go off into the billowing white smoke at the back, while the stage fills with Fortinbras’s forces - soldiers in camouflage and berets, with automatics at the ready.

So this makes it quite clear to the viewer that actually this production is about the death of a decrepit empire, futilely nourishing evildoing in its attempt to save its face. Therefore Claudius’s military doctrine, his nurturing of foppish guardsmen in the first act, then in the second throwing them into the decisive battle offstage at the same time as he’s organising the murder of his sensitive nephew, all that is overturned with a crash.

The scenography quite obviously underlines this: the gigantic engraving of the interior of the imperial palace, with which Nick Ormerod has covered the entire stage space, by the end appears to be ripped to shreds. The production’s creators have presented the political agenda of their production with the caution of naughty schoolboys, and with good reason: in a country where in the heights of Brezhnev censorship the Taganka Theatre gave their brave Hamlet, a treatment like that would find greater understanding than a folktale about Yorick the clown and his lonely, hunted ward.

The truth is that in order to make a genuinely political ballet, it’s not enough just to have people playing soldiers and specials. What’s needed is the spiritual force and powerful talent of a Lyubimov, a Borovsky or Vysotsky. It’s here that this international trio has its greatest problems.


Hamlet gets a hammering from a friend

Alas, poor Yorick (pix Bolsho/Damir Yusupov)

Urin admits he’s become conservative

Arts fight threat of state censorship

Medinsky: ‘Russia protects Shakespeare from paedophilia’